Food Program Gets Rare Access In North Korea North Korea recently allowed foreigners to visit parts of the country that aren't usually seen. Tony Banbury, the World Food Program's regional director for Asia, is there now and has visited several locations close to the border with China.
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Food Program Gets Rare Access In North Korea

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Food Program Gets Rare Access In North Korea

Food Program Gets Rare Access In North Korea

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

We're about to get a rare glimpse of some of the farthest reaches of North Korea. It comes from an official with the World Food Program. He's been traveling across one of the world's most reclusive nations after North Korea let the program resume food shipments to areas that were once off limits. This week he arrived at the northern port city called Chongjin, and within sight of the rusting cranes in the port, Tony Banbury picked up the phone and gave us a call.

Would you describe where you've been the last few days?

TONY BANBURY: I flew from Pyongyang up to the far northern part of North Korea. And we went from there to a place called Peikom(ph) County, and that was the first time any international aid workers have ever been to that county. And one of my North Korean counterparts said most of the people there would have never seen a foreigner. And he himself had never been to that county.

INSKEEP: So what are you finding when you go there?

BANBURY: We have just completed the most comprehensive food security assessment of the last four years. And the basic conclusion is that the situation has been getting worse across the board the past couple of years as a result of poor harvests and dramatically reduced international food aid. And that's especially true for elderly people, pregnant and nursing women, young children. And those are exactly the groups we're targeting with our food assistance.

INSKEEP: What kinds of people have you been meeting as you travel through the northern part of North Korea?

BANBURY: We have visited children's nurseries, pediatric wards in hospitals, and spoken with a number of government officials. We met with the vice chairman of the county council in this formerly closed county. And I asked him what more WFP could do to help the people in his county. And he said, Well, instead of providing aid just to the vulnerable groups, please provide food to all the people of the county.

INSKEEP: The indicator being that really everybody's vulnerable there.

BANBURY: Across the board everyone is suffering. In the nursery, the director was reporting that a lot of children are sick because their parents are going out and foraging wild foods and mixing them in with the (unintelligible) they have at home. To varying degrees everyone's in some bit of need here. Yes.

INSKEEP: Mr. Banbury, it's so rare that somebody gets to move around the North Korean countryside. I'd just like you to describe what it looks like when you go into one of the towns that you've been in.

BANBURY: The towns are pretty bleak. They have very basic cement block architecture. There's not a lot of emphasis on aesthetics. This is really an ex-industrial society that has moved backwards. There are no tractors in the fields. It's just draft animals. The odd truck that we see on the road, many of them have actually been converted to wood-burning stoves. And that's what powers the trucks.

INSKEEP: It sounds like people were willing to be somewhat frank with you about their situation, which is not something you would assume North Koreans would always be free to do.

BANBURY: We are always trying to get qualitative information from people. The North Korean officials we speak to though are much more interested in quantitative information. They want to show us books that indicate exactly how much food's in a warehouse and how much has been distributed. So we have to work hard to get that more qualitative information. And there is some reticence to talk about: What's their salary? How much food did they eat yesterday? What do they spend their income on? Things like that. They find it a little bit too prying.

INSKEEP: Not too much prying allowed but a bit. Tony Banbury is the World Food Program's regional director for Asia.

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